Reinforcement is one of the primary teaching tools used in ABA. Reinforcement increases an individual’s motivation to learn. Higher motivation often equates to increased interest in the skills being taught and thus, we are more likely to see improvement and progress with the skills.

Reinforcement is used daily throughout our programming. When delivering reinforcement, the Knapp Center staff follows the guidelines for reinforcement set forth in our curriculum, which includes:

  • Reinforcers should be functional. In other words, reinforcers should be reinforcing to the individual being taught and have the desired effect on behavior. What is reinforcing to one person may not be reinforcing to another. For example, some individuals may want to work to earn popcorn whereas others may not like popcorn; thus, this would not be a functional reinforcer for that particular individual. In addition, reinforcers change over time. An individual may find something reinforcing at one time and then may not find it reinforcing at a later date. Thus, you continuously need to reassess your functional reinforcers (the Knapp Center staff regularly uses preference assessments to help identify new functional reinforcers).


  • Continuously identify new functional reinforcers or help develop new functional reinforcers. The Knapp Center staff often assesses what our students likes to play with or what they gravitate toward when they are left to their own devices. We use the qualities of preferred toys and objects to determine other reinforcement ideas. For example, if the individual prefers toys that make sound, they may also like musical books, a CD player, an app of musical videos on the phone or iPad, etc. To help continuously identify reinforcers, a reinforcement inventory can be very helpful.


  • Reinforcement should be immediate when teaching a new skill. To be effective, when a new skill is emerging, reinforcement should immediately follow the expected response. After the skill is established, we then can consider delayed reinforcement (i.e. token economy). You must be sure the individual associates his or her behavior with the reinforcement; this is why we want it to be immediate. To help them make this association, reinforcement is most effective when it occurs within one second following the expected response. They begin to learn that if they give the specific correct response, they will earn the reinforcement and this helps to facilitate the learning process.


  • Reinforcers should only be available during treatment sessions or when teaching the skill in the natural environment. The individual should not have “free” access to the reinforcers at other times of the day as this will weaken the power of the reinforcer. For example, if a specific video is used for reinforcement during toilet training, the individual should not have access to the video at other times of the day. If he/she does have access to the video at other times, then they may not be motivated to eliminate in the toilet since they can gain access to the reinforcer when less effort is required of them.


  • Research indicates that the intensity of reinforcement will result in effective outcomes. Individuals are more likely to expend more effort if the reinforcement is greater. Thus, you should use differential reinforcement. This means you provide the most favored reinforcement for unprompted correct responses during discrete trial instruction and give moderately preferred reinforcement for prompted trials. Incorrect responses should receive no reinforcement. Differential reinforcement will help the individual learn the skill more quickly.


  • A wide range of reinforcers should be used to prevent against satiation of one specific reinforcer. This helps to ensure that the reinforcer will keep its value and continue to be functional for the student. Using a variety of reinforcers also provides us with a way to give differential reinforcement. To help with this, you might want to create a reinforcement board with pictures of the reinforcers or reinforcers written out (for those individuals who can read), so the student can choose what reinforcer they are working for. After a reinforcer has been selected, it should be removed from the board, to ensure other reinforcers are used for the next programs and to avoid satiation of one specific reinforcer. Basically, you want to rotate the reinforcers.


  • Save the reinforcers that are longer in duration or harder to remove from the individual to the end of the session. This way they can earn the longest or best reinforcement at the very end, and you do not have to worry about removing it from the individual. For example, if the individual enjoys watching a specific video or playing a videogame, save these highly motivating reinforcers that take a while to complete to the very end of your treatment session.


  • It is critical to consistently pair secondary reinforcement (i.e. verbal praise) with primary reinforcers. Primary reinforcers are those things needed to live and survive, such as food and drink. Individuals with ASD often respond well to primary reinforcers, but not to secondary reinforcement such as social praise. However, primary reinforcers are not natural and likely are not used in a natural environment such as a classroom setting. For example, it is not natural for a school teacher to give a student a sip from a favorite drink for correctly responding. It is natural for the teacher to tell the student, “good job.” When we pair primary renforcers with secondary reinforcement such as social praise, the secondary reinforcement takes on the reinforcement properties of the primary reinforcer. In other words, the individual begins to be reinforced by social praise, so we can then decrease or stop using primary reinforcers.


  • Reinforcement should be age appropriate (as long as it can also be functional). By using reinforcement appropriate to the individual’s chronological age, this may help increase peer acceptance as peers may also find the particular object or activity reinforcing, and this can allow common bonds to form. By using reinforcers that are age appropriate, then you are also increasing the chances that the individual will encounter their reinforcers in their natural environment (i.e. school, community events).


  • Reinforcement should be faded over time as an individual learns the new skill. Programs that are in maintenance or that the individual finds easier to perform should have a thinner schedule of reinforcement, meaning that delayed reinforcement is used. Using a token economy system helps fade the reinforcers or thin the reinforcement schedule. An individual might be required to complete several easier tasks or maintenance tasks successfully prior to receiving the reinforcement. It is important to fade the reinforcers over time as this makes the reinforcement schedule more natural and one that the individual will likely encounter in their natural environment.


  • Timing of reinforcement is very important. You do not want to break the behavior momentum of working in order to engage in reinforcement. After the student understands the association of an expected response and reinforcement, then work toward completing several tasks or receive several correct responses before giving the individual their reward. Place reinforcement on a variable reinforcement schedule (a schedule where reinforcement is given at random successful times) so you do not break the momentum of working in order to provide reinforcement. You want to provide reinforcement at a natural stopping point during the work, such as when a task is completed or several tasks is completed. However, keep in mind that if the individual is just learning a new skill, then a more dense reinforcement schedule may be required and you may need to have a 1:1 ratio schedule for reinforcement with continuously stopping work to reinforce.


  • Reinforcement schedules must be followed consistently. When a new skill is being taught or the skill is just emerging, then a more dense reinforcement schedule is needed. The more consistent the instructors are with applying the reinforcers as outlined in the reinforcement schedule then the more likely the student will consistently emit the correct response.


  • Verbal reinforcement should be behavior specific, not global non-descript praise. Thus, do not say “good job” or “way to go” as this is non-descriptive and does not inform the individual what is a good job or what they did to receive the social praise. Ensure the verbal reinforcement is behavior specific such as “good job sitting down.”


  • Do not bribe individuals with the reinforcement. After the student learns to make the association between reinforcement and the correct response, then decrease the frequency of informing the individual in advance of the reinforcer they will receive for working or completing a task. They may choose at the beginning of a treatment session or beginning of a new cluster of responses, the reinforcer they are working to earn, but you do not need to continuously remind them.

The  Knapp Center staff uses a wide variety of reinforcers, from edibles to preferred toys and activities, to those activities that the child will most likely come in contact with at typical school or home (to increase likelihood of generalization of skills into that environment).